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Tighten your belt: Healthy eating on a budget

Times are tough! While we are planning where to cut, trim and tighten our belts, your compromise doesn’t have to sacrifice a healthy way of eating.

Contrary to popular belief, healthy eating does not have to be unaffordable. In this article I will share a few tips on how you can tighten your belt, both financially and health-wise!

Form a grocery group with friends or family to buy in bulk and save

Often, there are specials for an entire box of a certain fruit or vegetable but your household either doesn’t have enough pantry or freezer space to store that amount and you also don’t want to only eat broccoli for a whole month.

Onions, potatoes, butternut and gem squash are cheaper by the pocket and tomatoes by the box.

Why not form a grocery group with friends or family to buy in bulk and save? That immediately helps to reduce the cost drastically, gives you an opportunity to eat a more varied diet and (you guessed it) it is more balanced and healthier!

Fruit and vegetables on a budget

If there is a group where you should not cut down, this is it. Especially with winter approaching and coronavirus still an imminent threat, make sure you still get your 5 – 7 portions of fruits and vegetables a day. In dietetics we call these “protective foods” that guard against disease.

Not only are they much cheaper during their peak growing times (see the next section); they also taste better. Experiment with different cooking methods to keep your menu varied and enjoy them daily.

  • Stay away from canned fruit and vegetables as these tend to be more expensive and often have unhealthy ingredients added such as sugar and sodium.
  • When in doubt, veggies always for the win! If fruit might be too expensive you can save money by buying more vegetables, especially those that are nice to snack on when raw, such as carrots, celery, cucumber, tomatoes and fresh green beans.
  • Do not avoid or dismiss frozen vegetables. They are usually frozen fresh after harvest and can work out cheaper than fresh produce as you can keep it in the freezer. Make sure that you have enough freezer space available to prevent food waste.
  • Self-selected vegetables and fruit are cheaper per kilogram than those that are pre-packaged for convenience.
  • Start your own vegetable garden. Grow your favourite vegetables and herbs in your backyard or garden and enjoy fresh, organic produce.
Buy local and seasonal

Another factor to consider post-lockdown is stimulating the South African economy. This might also help you stretch your Rands, because buying local is usually more affordable. It is also vital to consume seasonal fruit and vegetables because it is more environmentally friendly, fresher and (in my opinion) it is tastier. It is also more nutritious, due to the shorter ‘pick-to-eat’ time, leaving less time for nutrient losses.

Which fruits and vegetables are in season now?

Fruit and vegetables to choose in autumn and winter:

ApplesAubergines/ Eggplants
DatesBaby marrows
LemonsBrussels sprouts
NaartjiesButter beans
OrangesHubbard squash
Pawpaw/ papayaRadishes
PearsSweet peppers

The most expensive part of any meal is usually the protein component. Thus, the fastest way to cut your grocery bill is to reduce your red meat intake. Though protein-rich foods are an important part of your daily meals, it does not only have to be red meat. There are far healthier and less expensive sources available such as chicken, fish, eggs, nuts, beans and pulses.

  • Have at least one meatless day per week. Experiment with vegetarian sources of protein. Plant-based proteins, such as beans and lentils, are quite inexpensive, very nutritious, easy to prepare and environmentally friendly.
  • Stretch the meat in your dishes by mixing in kidney beans, mixed beans, lentils or even baked beans. When cooking mincemeat add soya, lentils, beans, oat bran, oats and/or vegetables to bulk it out. You can also add beans, lentils, potatoes and other veggies to stews, casseroles and curries.
  • Tinned fish, such as pilchards and tuna, is usually cheaper than buying fresh fish. Be sure to buy it tinned in water rather than oil as it is far healthier and contains less calories. Inland frozen fish also tends to be cheaper than fresh fish at the shore, so always compare prices.
  • Whole chicken is cheaper per kilogram. Save money by cutting the chicken up into portions and freezing for later use.
Grains and cereals
  • Buy unrefined whole grains as far as possible. Refining makes a product more expensive and strips the food of fibre, vitamins and minerals. For example, standard low-GI brown bread is often cheaper than white bread, and generally much cheaper than special breads and rolls.
    • The more unrefined a product is the longer it keeps you full (resulting in you having to eat less often, ultimately saving you money)
  • Needless to say, luxuries such cake, biscuits, rusks and potato chips are expensive, empty kilojoules which add no value to your health or budget. Avoid them and your wallet and waistline will thank you.
  • Experiment with grains such as samp, corn, rice and pearled wheat as they are often cheaper than other grains and are very tasty.
  • Dry products like maize meal, wheat flour, rice, pasta and frozen foods keep well for a longer period and therefore can be bought in bulk.
  • Ready-to-eat cereals cost more than double the price of maize meal and oats.

Another way of increasing your protein intake and getting in some calcium is by consuming more dairy, but it might also help you reduce your expenses.

  • Milk sold in plastic bags/ sachets is generally cheaper than those packaged in plastic bottles or cartons.
  • Use skim-milk powder instead of coffee creamers, tea whiteners or milk blends.
  • More affordable substitutes like low-fat or fat-free cottage cheese can be used instead of more expensive ingredients like ricotta cheese.
  • Reducing cheese in cooking without sacrificing the taste of the dish can be achieved by using more herbs, for example a little mustard or cayenne pepper.
  • Use yoghurt, condensed milk and evaporated milk sparingly, as these items can be quite expensive.
  • Single portion items, for instance single serving cans of fruit or yoghurt, are often more expensive than buying a large tub of yoghurt. Decant the yoghurt into reusable containers if you need to travel with it.
Cutting the fats
  • Use only a little oil in the preparation of food. Take note that certain foods, like onions, don’t have to be fried in oil. You can simply soften them in a little hot water in your frying pan before adding the other ingredients.
  • Grill, steam and microwave foods instead of frying them. It’s not only healthier, it will also save you from using butter, margarine or oil.
Budget grocery shopping tips
  • Make a list of the food you already have on hand in your refrigerator, freezer, and pantry.
  • Keep a list in the kitchen to write down food items that you need to buy.
  • Stick to your shopping list to avoid impulse buying. Buy only what is on the shopping list. Use a calculator to help you stick to the budget.
  • Avoid shopping on an empty stomach. Going to the grocery store when you are hungry will leave you more likely to buy on impulse.
  • Look for store sales or specials on store pamphlets, coupons, local newspapers or online advertisements. Plan a week’s menu in advance and buy accordingly so that you can take advantage of weekly specials.
  • Compare prices and quality when shopping – often stores indicate the Rand per gram which comes in handy when comparing different package sizes and brands with one another.
  • Remember that no-name brands and buying items in big sizes are not necessarily cheaper.
  • Look at the top and bottom of the shelf for lower cost foods. Scan the supermarket shelves as the more expensive items are usually placed at eye level.
  • If not buying in bulk, use a smaller trolley to control how much food you can actually put in.
  • Practise portion control and cook just enough for everyone. This will save your Rands as well as help your waistline. Buy only foods that your family will use up before it gets spoiled.
  • Avoid buying convenience foods such as soda, cookies, processed foods and pre-packaged meals. They are both expensive and unhealthy.
  • If you cannot go without snacking, make your own pre-packed snacks by buying a large packet of raisins, nuts, dried fruit or pretzels and separating them into individual portions yourself. You can also snack on freshly cut fruits and vegetables.

Nutrition Information Centre of the University of Stellenbosch http://www.sun.ac.za/english/faculty/healthsciences/nicus/Pages/default.aspx

Heart and Stroke Foundation of South Africa http://www.heartfoundation.co.za/